Charter school backers regroup after stinging setback

Baker touted models such as Springfield's existing "empowerment zone"

charterschool

BOSTON (AP) — Charter school proponents are regrouping after the lopsided defeat in Massachusetts of Question 2, a ballot initiative that would have allowed the schools to expand their presence beyond existing state caps.

More than 6 in 10 voters rejected the proposal, according to unofficial returns from Tuesday’s election. And some of the widest margins of defeat came in the very cities where supporters had hoped to increase charter school options for families whose children attend underperforming or failing schools.

The measure was defeated 62 percent to 38 percent in Boston and by a slightly smaller majority in Springfield.

Backers spent more than $24 million in the unsuccessful effort, a record for any ballot question in state history.

The loss was a blow to charter school supporters not only in Massachusetts but also around the country. They blamed the setback on the intransigence of teachers unions, which contributed the bulk of the $14 million spent opposing the measure.

“The unions will continue to fight for the status quo, locking kids in schools that aren’t meeting their needs,” said Tillie Elvrum, president of Washington, D.C.-based PublicSchoolOptions.org. “But we will be ready to mobilize in state houses across the country to advocate for our children’s education because we know them best.”

Unions and other opponents of Question 2 argued that charters — public schools that operate independently from local school districts — drain already limited financial resources from traditional schools and fail to adequately serve students with special needs or language barriers.

About 4 percent of Massachusetts students attend charters, with another 32,000 on wait lists.

The setback also was stinging for the state’s popular Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who appeared in radio and TV ads and even campaigned door-to-door in support of the question.

Baker avoid pointing fingers after the vote, instead focusing on other ways the state might lower a stubborn academic achievement gap between students in urban schools and those in more affluent suburbs.

“We need to pursue other alternatives,” Baker said. “In a state where so many of our schools and so many of our school districts are national leaders, it’s really important we make sure that all of our kids have those kinds of opportunities.”

State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who opposed the ballot question, struck a similar chord, calling on the Legislature to pursue an “Education 2.0” approach in the next session beginning in January. While previous education reform initiatives had yielded results, he said, those efforts had now stalled.

“We still have an achievement gap problem, and we still have funding problems in public schools,” said Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat.

The vote on Question 2 makes it unlikely existing state caps on Commonwealth charters will be lifted anytime soon, but Rosenberg said there are other alternative public schools that can play a greater role in the future. Horace Mann charters, for example, differ from Commonwealth schools because they operate with the blessing of local school committees and teachers unions.

There also could be a greater role for innovation schools, which are semi-autonomous public schools given more freedom to experiment with “creative and inventive” education strategies. Baker, meanwhile, touted models such as Springfield’s existing “empowerment zone,” a partnership of eight middle schools governed by a local and state appointees.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

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